Earlier this year, Ekow Quartey could be seen playing regular character Pedro across all episodes of new TV series Becoming Elizabeth, and reunited with the rest of the cast for their premiere in New York. Also this year, Ekow played ‘Slim’ Jim Sandford in Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators for the episode Hunger for Bread and he will be playing Steve in upcoming episodes of Apple TV+ series Trying. Since making his screen debut in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, Ekow has been part of a number of screen projects including playing James in the TV series This Way Up alongside Aisling Bea as Aine, and Joel Aidoo in Call the Midwife. Also having a successful stage career, Ekow has recently been covering the role of Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe (while lead actor Adam Gillen was off due to injury), has played Macbeth in Macbeth in 2020 (which was filmed for an online release during lockdown), toured with Barber Shop Chronicles and was nominated for an Ian Charleson Award for his portrayal of Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We recently spoke with Ekow about playing Pedro in Becoming Elizabeth, being part of the Channel 4 series This Way Up and covering the role of Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe.
What is Pedro like to play in Becoming Elizabeth and was there anything that drew you to the series?
Pedro is a Spanish mercenary who finds himself caught in the political chess of the 1500s. He’s principled, confident and loyal. He is such a great character to play, especially since you think you know exactly who he is for so long, just for him to later show himself as not exactly who you expected him to be.
Can you tell us about the show and your character and how it has been seeing the fan response to the release?
I feel so privileged to be part of such an excellently-written and stylishly-created show! People seem to be enjoying it and its pace and though it is recorded history, still to be shocked and moved by it, which is just amazing!
My mum doesn’t like any nudity or blood so she’s been fast-forwarding through lots of it but she endeavours to watch my bits… she has no idea what’s going on but she’s proud, which is nice.
What is it like working with the rest of the cast and how was it getting into character for the first time?
The cast are just exceptional. I spent so many hours on set just watching them give breathtaking performances left and right.
I had had weeks of horse training and dialect training so once it came to the first day I felt quite prepared to be Pedro but filming my first scene with the formidable and loving Romola Garai, who plays Mary Tudor, was the nicest way to settle in to the months of filming ahead.
What do you enjoy most about being part of Becoming Elizabeth and what are some of your favourite memories from filming Series 1?
I just love that it’s good. I’m watching it eagerly awaiting the next episode to come out. I haven’t often enjoyed watching myself but I can tolerate it in this, haha. There are way too many great memories. Filming the battle scene from Episode 1. We started the day at 4am, a couple of hours to get into costume and then what I thought was going to be a gruelling 12 hours of filming actually become an impressive three hours and we’d absolutely nailed it! Falling asleep under a tree in the beautiful sites of Wells whilst waiting to be used but mostly just all the time spent with the wonderful cast and crew!
How was it attending the premiere and what was it like seeing the completed project?
Never felt so cool in my life. Flown out and put up in New York. Getting to see the first episode in an auditorium of people who had never seen it before. Hearing their excitement and adoration of the completed project was just wonderful. And it was great to get together with the cast again and just celebrate us and what we’d made!
You will be appearing in Series 3 of Trying as Steve, how much did you know about the series before booking your role and what was it like to film?
I’ve known about Trying since it first came out. I absolutely love the show, its tone and its heart! Funnily enough though, when I auditioned for it, it was under a code name, a code name that I wasn’t told was a code name until I got my call sheet and saw the familiar lead cast numbered off.
In February, you played ‘Slim’ Jim Sandford in an episode of Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators, can you tell us about this?
Oh, this was an absolute joy to be part of too. Reunited with the delightful Mark Benton, we did As You Like It at the National together. I sound like a broken record but this was also such a lovely cast and crew to be part of up near Stratford-upon-Avon where we filmed the episode.
Slim Jim is a serial binge dieter whose weight yo-yos up and down. A leader of the latest weight loss group he’s in is murdered and with his fluctuating weight and the fact the leader was calling him out for it the very day he was killed, there’s a lot of questions to be answered.
You play James in This Way Up for Channel 4, how is it working on a comedy series and what is James like to play?
This Way Up will forever have a special place in my heart. A comedy series that takes a beautifully delicate and utterly hilarious scalpel to mental health will always be special to me. In this day and age, where we are trying to be more conscious about each other and each other’s needs, Aisling Bea’s This Way Up portrays a woman’s sibling love and relationships so accurately it hurts. You’ll laugh a lot and, if you’re like me, you’ll cry just as much.
James is the boss of an English language school in the heart of London that Aine (Aisling Bea) works at and they have a close working relationship that results in them planning to start their own school.
At the start of your screen career, you worked on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, what do you remember most from this project and how did you find the experience on set?
I mean, this was the coolest thing 12 year old me ever did! To be part of something that I knew and loved from the books, read slowly but diligently by me after my older sister finished our shared copy in less than 48 hours. Every day felt quite surreal now I look back on it. I was part of this huge machine and set with actors like Alan Rickman (may he rest in peace), David Thewlis, Dame Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane… I mean, you know the names and I got to be “a seminal part” (my fans words, not mine). As my first experience on a film set, I was definitely spoilt, especially by the 4pm cakes 👀.
On stage, you are in the cast of Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe, how has the run been going so far and what do you enjoy about performing at Shakespeare’s Globe?
So, I actually wasn’t in the cast but I covered Adam Gillen, who plays Henry VIII, whilst he was recovering from an injury. The Globe and its audience are like no other. You can feel like a rockstar rousing the audience on that stage but also be held so delicately by that audience when you meet them with truth and vulnerability. A Globe audience wants to share as much as possible in these stories and if you let them in, they can make you feel like you’re flying.
What has it been like performing as Henry VIII and how has it been getting back to live theatre for the first time since the pandemic started?
Performing as Henry VIII whilst also featuring in a series that shines a light on the years directly after his death felt so serendipitous.
I can’t lie, it was a strange experience performing with a script in hand as part of a company who performed with the grace of the best synchronised swimming team and me alongside doggy paddling hoping not to swallow too much water. However, it felt like everyone in that building was there to hold my hand, from cast, production team and the literal audience member who would hold my hand in a particular part in the first half of the show.
How did you find your time playing Macbeth in Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2020 and how was it having the show filmed and shown online during lockdown?
Macbeth was a bittersweet show. Sweet because this show might have been the most confident I’ve ever felt in my own ability to create and adapt. Performing in a cast that felt like family! What was bitter is it all ended too soon with the arrival of COVID-19. This was a real high and low period for me.
There was a point in lockdown where rumours were going around that the Globe may not open its doors again, I was afraid I’d go down in history as the cursed Macbeth production that shut the Globe forever, thankfully the Globe has reopened and is flourishing as ever, and hopefully my name will still go down in history but for something far more positive.
You were nominated for an Ian Charleson Award for your role of Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, how did this feel and what was the show like to perform in?
Sean Holmes’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a raucous joy of a summer in 2019. This version encapsulated the big hearts and wild spirits of its cast, especially with all of us doubling as Puck in various parts of the show. This show has the most special moment I’ve ever had on stage. My Lysander would sing love songs to the woman he was in love with and in the second half when I was trying to woo Helena, I would go into a love song medley of around eight songs. On one show, I started with Bruno Mars’ Just the Way You Are and, halfway through the second line, the entire yard (close to 700 people) joined in and sang it to Helena with me, I’ll never forget that show! Then to be recognised and nominated for an Ian Charleson was just the cherry on top of this delicious cake.
What was it like being in the cast of Barber Shop Chronicles and do you have any stand-out highlights from working on the show?
Barber Shop Chronicles is such an incredible play written by Inua Ellams looking at masculinity, race, love, politics, fatherhood and culture through the eyes of over 35 different black men hailing from Africa and the Caribbean. Now, I have never done a show in my life where I have ever felt so culturally comfortable and in line with the story being told. I’ve also never been in a room with 11 other male actors of colour. This show felt like such an expression of who we are, our families and our experiences in this world. We were united by our numerous similarities, which further allowed us to express our intricate and beautiful differences. We toured America with this show and I’ll never forget being in DC at the JFK Centre and saying “When they came, we had the land and they had the bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed and when we opened them, they had the land and we had the bible”. The knowing groan that rippled through the audience was so palpable. They got what we were saying like nowhere else, they shared it with us.
Over the years, you’ve worked on a number of over projects on screen and stage including Call the Midwife, Peter Pan and Spring Awakening, can you tell us about some of them?
Firstly, can I just say thank you so much for this interview because there are times in your career where all you do is look forward and try and work out what’s next and you’ve really made me stop and look back in awe at some of the opportunities I’ve had and anything I’ve got to do! Thank you.
Call the Midwife felt important because it was an episode about sickle cell, which I have several friends who suffer with. So being able to be part of an episode shedding light on something that possibly a lot of people don’t know about felt really rewarding.
Peter Pan brought me some of the closest friends I have today. The show was so fun, honest and exhausting. And doing a show that repeatedly had so many young people in the audience can be really wholesome and life affirming (if they enjoy it, haha).
Spring Awakening was the first professional show I did out of drama school and that was adapted by our very own Anya Reiss, the very same creator of Becoming Elizabeth! That show also took me back to my alma mater, Leeds, to open the show.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
Growing up, I just loved to mess around, laugh and make other people laugh. I love playing and acting allows me to do that as an adult and not be told off for it anymore. If I had £100 for every school report that said “has so much potential but really enjoys to play too much”, I’d genuinely be a billionaire. I grew up watching lots of animated series and comedy. I just always found them so entertaining.
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from your career?
Goodness, this list could be endless but the ones listed below are my more obscure picks that I love.
Films – Life, Ladder 49 and Space Jam.
TV – Boardwalk Empire, Bernard’s Watch and Dragon Ball Z.
Theatre – Cabaret, Jerusalem and For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy.
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